Man-handling Man-centered Theology

people cut outsI often hear this distinction being made typically by conservative Christians, God-centered vs. man-centered. Whenever I see it articulated, I get the sense that it is often communicated to distinguish between Christian faith and practice that is shaped based on the desires of man vs. what God wants and has communicated to us.

Now I do affirm God-centered theology. I strenuously insist that God’s self-revelation though the Incarnate and written word must inform our theology. When deciphering the character and nature of God, his actions and requirements, his ultimate revelation through the Son, and redemptive history it behooves us to approach his Word with the greatest humility. Surely that will mean confronting some aspects that are uncomfortable. But it helps to remember that He is God; we are not.

So I sympathize with the decrying of man-centered theology if that means theology that is shaped by man to accommodate man’s creation of God and the Christian faith in his or her own image. However, I think we can go too far and cut man out of the picture all together. God-centered does not mean man nothingness.

A friend alerted me to this interview with Kelly Kapic, author of A Little Book for New Theologians. I’ve not heard of him but I loved what he said in this interview.

This is partly behind what I mean by advocating for an “anthroposensitive theology.” Forgive me for being technical for a minute, but I define it as a refusal to divorce theological considerations from practical human application, since theological reflections are always interwoven with anthropological concerns. This combination of “anthropo-” (“human”; “relating to human beings”; from Greek anthropos) and “sensitive” is an attempt to avoid an overly simplistic classification of theology as either theocentric (God-centered) or anthropocentric (human-centered).

Clearly our theology must be God-centered, but this language can mask the reality that our theology is, at the same time, concerned with our relation to this God. While other terms such as “pastoral” or “experiential” could be used, these terms often carry either unnecessarily negative connotations or represent a notion of what is done only after theological reflection, as though we work to get our theology correct and then move on to practical concerns. Yet in the complex relationship between life and theology, we should admit that for good or ill our experience and practice not only grow out of our theology but also inform it.

It doesn’t take much for me to convince people that good or bad theology can influence how we live – people are quick to embrace this trickle down theory. But then when I argue that not only does our theology influence our lives, but our lives influence our theology, it is at that point people get nervous. They may agree that ‘liberals’ have allowed ‘cultural forces’ to influence them (e.g., ‘they just think that because they are reflecting radical feminism’ or something like that). But too often we fail to see that this applies to all of us, for good or ill. None of us escape ‘culture,’ and none of us escape the reality that our life experiences influence our theology. Our experiences often make certain things more or less believable (this is similar to an important insight by Wittgenstein). Thus, we need to watch our ‘lives and doctrine’ closely, for they are interwoven in ways we may never fully appreciate.

And this is how we man-handle man-centered theology by insisting it has nothing to do with us. As I wrote about in De-Humanizing Christianity, we can treat God-centered theology in a way that erases any traces of our humanity in the equation and reduce people to widgets who believe, say and do the right thing. Later in the interview Kapic also addresses this notion of pure objectivity as if our personality, experience, personal history or any kind of cultural influences (including Christian sub-cultures!) don’t contribute to our articulation of Christianity. This is delusional.

At the heart of Christian theology is God who came down to man. His condescension resulted in becoming man who sympathizes with all our weaknesses (Heb. 4:13). In a sense man IS at the center because theology is aimed at man and all the fallibility that comes with it. Or at least we can say that theology is man oriented. It is because God wants to be the God of man he created (see Exod. 6:7) that we must take into account the attributes of man as much as the attributes of God.

Swiping man out of the picture has ramifications for the personal transformation and contributions to the church as well as the world. If we don’t treat man in accordance with the image bearer he was meant to be, we are not doing Christian theology any justice. Theology is to be applied and lived, not just in our own personal Christian walks but also how we impact the world we live in. And that world contains people, hurting people, proud people, challenged people, abused people, fearful people, and so on. People whose ways of lives and thinking have been shaped by their environment and personality, who then go impact other people, individually and in collective ways, yes even in the church.

And there are also injustices perpetrated by man towards others. Personal injustices as well as systematic injustices. Injustice undermines, and in some cases, destroys human dignity. Human flourishing is as much a part of a Christian worldview as God-centered theology because the aim is for man to find his worth in the one true God and contribute to the world around him accordingly. Gen. 1-2 don’t go away because of Gen. 3. We cannot sweep injustices under the rug as if it is meaningless. Injustice impacts people’s lives. Even perceived injustice can shape how we think and respond.

Yes, transformation begins with union in Christ and the work of the Spirit in accordance with the Father’s will.  As Paul notes, being transformed in the renewing of our mind proves the good and perfect will of God (Rom. 12:2). But getting there takes dealing with man according to who he is and what has impacted him. I was reminded yesterday in a class on Hebrews, that the heart involves the thoughts and intentions (Heb. 4:12). How has this been shaped? That is a crucial question that we must deal with. It’s why the task of pastoral counseling should be handled with the utmost thoroughness and care. It’s why we have to consider the lens through which people view the world if any type of meaningful orientation towards Christian faith, practice and ethics is take place. Our humanity matters.

So let’s not man-handle man-centered theology by throwing man out of the equation.

One thought on “Man-handling Man-centered Theology

  1. Ron Haygood February 4, 2015 / 2:05 pm

    Amen. Thanks for the clarification. I see this issue more clearly now that you posted this.

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